The "Exposing a Difficult Past" memoir panel
at the Brooklyn Book Festival Sunday.
From the left, Darin Strauss, Kathryn Harrison,
Elizabeth Wurtzel, Nelson George and Piper Kerman.
What is unmentionable in public is, nonetheless, fair game in print.
This past weekend I went to the Brooklyn Book Festival. One of their first panels sounded especially intriguing. A group of well-known memoir writers was to discuss what it was like to write about events most people don’t even speak of out loud.
I’m talking about such matters as a secret battle with depression and drug addiction, a family torn apart by AIDS, an upstanding woman’s year spent in prison, a cyclist’s death after veering into a writer’s car (from the writer’s point of view) and, most horrific of all in terms of societal taboos, a young woman’s sexual relationship with her father. Kathryn Harrison did this last thing and wrote about it in “The Kiss,” a book I’d reviewed in the late ‘90s when it came out. I also referenced “The Kiss” in my book proposal for “Free Fall: A Late-in-Life Love Affair” and considered it one of my models.
I couldn’t have known, but Harrison and I have more in common than just telling very personal things to the whole world.
When explaining why she wrote about her incestuous relationship, she said: I was blessed. I was totally unconscious about what I was doing to myself. I wrote without thinking about it and I didn’t think about what would happen.
People I meet are similarly curious: What were your intentions? What do your friends think?
I was a little more cognizant about my purposes than Harrison. I wanted to include erotica in “Free Fall” because I was having what could only be described as a torrid affair. And sexual activity was a catalyst to what followed — a total jettisoning of life as I had been living it for the past two decades.
The sex was fun and sobering at the same time. The element of abandon, something my lover Jim was aware was happening to me during sex, was something I could recognize as important and transformative. I could stop thinking, let go and just be. How novel is this state of being for a middle-aged woman! How pleasurable! Jim gave me this opportunity to let go of a very challenging existence and our sexual activity showed me the way.
The sex scenes in “Free Fall” are strategically placed and though brief they are explicit. I describe them not in graphic terms but in emotional and psychological terms. Sex, in this type of literature, is metaphor. I loved writing it and admit that I was and am very turned on by my own writing. I loved the times, as well, when I could present a completed chapter to Jim, with its erotic parts, to see what he thought. It was fun but, like Harrison, I simply didn’t think too much about it.
That changed when I discovered that my book had been classed as “erotica,” as I’ve written about before. My worries had to do with marketing my book, making use of my mostly male network of published writers and figuring out how to transition intellectually from selling a memoir to selling erotica. I was doomed with that classification, or so I thought. My publicist and editor did their best to help me adjust my thinking: Things are going to be fine. Not to mention, sex sells. It will be OK. You’ll see.
I’ve handled it. My male writer friends/colleagues disappointed me. They stayed away from endorsements or public gestures despite promises of help. Many men friends, on the other hand, wrote thoughtful letters about their own sexual lives and their positive responses. I’ve been interested and impressed by their openness. One thing I still worry over and work at: How do I stimulate sales? Well, we are all trying our best. Promotion, too, is another story for another day.
I still don’t dwell on the erotica in “Free Fall.” When asked how I feel about having such personal information shared publicly, I answer truthfully: I don’t. It was writing. I did it. It’s all there, between the covers, so to speak. And I’m out here, writing, living, moving on.
The sex belonged there. I did what a writer would do, or I should say, what I needed to do as a writer. There was and still is an unconscious aspect to it. I occasionally wonder if those sexual revelations are in any way defiant, anti-social aspects of behavior. I may appear contrite and conformist and gushy-grateful, but I’m counter-culture all the way.
A few months ago, I asked our library director in my town of Rockport what people were saying privately to her. Her answer: I’ve heard people wonder why you couldn’t have written it as fiction.
Like Harrison, much of my fiction is informed by my life. But I wanted to tell this story as truth in case there was one woman out there trapped by circumstances she thought she couldn’t escape. I wanted to show that you take what’s given and you use it to make a change. I wanted to show the value of sex. I wanted to say that sex matters and be heard. I own this story.
Sex is important. Or it can be. It is often the start of a new beginning whether or not we openly acknowledge it. Sex is, for women, probably one of the greatest of all life-changers right up there with education and having children. We meet a man (or a woman), we are attracted, we get intimate. Whoa! What power. What force. It’s all too much. So we create some rules around sex. Society gets a toehold. Order is established, more or less.
And books get written that challenge our tidy constructs.